CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Oh what a difference a week can make.
As North Carolina sprinted to the locker room after jumping out to a 27-14
halftime lead against Syracuse, the Tar Heels’ 65-foot Jumbotron in the
east end zone of Kenan Stadium, flashed the fourth quarter score from Winston-Salem
which read: (14) N.C. State 17, Wake Forest 38.
Although many “aluminum fans” permeated the announced crowd of 47,000
in attendance, the roar from Kenan Stadium was deafening.
But what a difference a half can make, especially when struggling defenses
take the field.
“It’s a sad situation that has reared its ugly head two weeks in
a row – tons of yards, tons of explosive plays – it really tears me
up,” UNC head coach John Bunting said. "Some guys played well enough on
defense to win, but it’s an 11-man effort on each play.”
Nothing could have been finer in the first half as the Tar Heels’ offense
was rolling. On its first possession, Carolina put aside any thoughts of being shutout by FSU last Saturday, by driving 35 yards on seven plays down to the Syracuse
28 yard line.
Then Dan Orner put away any thoughts backup place kicker
Topher Roberts might have had of supplanting him from his starting position.
After missing twice against the Seminoles a week ago, Orner nailed the first
of two first-half field goals – a 46-yarder that put UNC up 3-0.
On their next possession, the Tar Heels found the end zone for the first
time of the young season, when Darian Durant threw a 10-yard touchdown pass
to walk-on tight end John Dunn, starting in place of Bobby Blizzard, who was
ill and did not play.
The Tar Heels were up 10-0, and no one paid much attention when the Orangemen’s
big-play wide receiver Johnnie Morant quickly answered with a 36-yard touchdown
reception from R.J. Anderson.
No one minded too much because freshman Mike Mason would answer on UNC’s
ensuing possession with his first career touchdown catch from 44 yards out.
After all, Carolina led 17-7.
Following the first of three touchdown runs by Syracuse running back Walter Reyes, which cut the UNC lead back to three; things still seemed OK since
the Tar Heel offense was now so prolific.
Then came what likely signified the peak of happiness under the Carolina blue
skies in Chapel Hill this day. Offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill loosened his often conservative belt
and called for a halfback option pass at the Orangemen 24 – from of all
people – Ronnie McGill.
The rookie tailback sold the run perfectly and found Brandon Russell all alone
for a 24-yard touchdown. McGill had his first career touchdown pass before his
first career-rushing touchdown, and the Tar Heels went back up 24-14.
Who needs defense when the offense is this effective? Nothing to worry about
After both teams surrounded halftime by exchanging field goals, the home team
still led 27-17 and all was good in Tar Heel Nation.
And things would get better before they would get worse.
Jawarski Pollock's 25-yard touchdown reception gave UNC its biggest lead of the game at 34-17 with 4:58 remaining in the third quarter. Then the bottom fell out of the Carolina defense. More importantly, it became apparent that for the Tar Heels to win, the offense would have to keep scoring.
But that didn't happen.
While the offense had its break out game of the season, the defense simply
“We were all frustrated that the game got to that point,” Jacque Lewis said, “but we can’t put the blame on anyone. We’re a team
and the whole team has to take the blame for it.“
Just 20 seconds had elapsed off the clock when Morant scored again, this time
from on a 48-yard pass from Anderson. For the game, Morant had 160 yards and
two touchdowns on just seven receptions.
Then midway through the fourth quarter, Damien Rhodes got in the act with a
31-yard touchdown reception of his own.
By that time, there were no illusions. Although UNC still led 34-31, everyone
wearing light blue in the stadium knew the seven minutes and 42 seconds that
remained was plenty of time for Syracuse to tie the score or even go ahead.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, Syracuse’s final drive of regulation stalled
at the 19-yard line, forcing the Orangemen to settle for
the game-tying field goal.
The final score before overtime was 34-34.
While plenty of exciting action would still remain, from that point on, it
was evident that for the first time in the game the Tar Heels were fighting
an uphill battle.
“Our offense did a great job,” Syracuse senior defensive tackle Louis Gachelin said. “They came out there and punched them in the mouth.”
The Syracuse defense was anything but good, but the Carolina defense was worse.
“We’ve got to bring our hardhats and lunch pails and go back to work,”
UNC defensive tackle Chase Page said. “In 2001, the team started 0-3 and
won the Peach Bowl. It’s a long season.”
And it just got a lot longer.